Aiming to make a city more humane

It's 8 a.m., and in every corner of this kitchen on Chicago's West Side bakers are at work. Thirteen-year-old Reunese Washington is stirring three pounds of whole wheat flour and two pounds of raisins in a giant mixing bowl, with an eye to making a few hundred oatmeal raising cookies. Across the counter, 14-year-old Jeffrey Smith is mixing yeast and water for bread in a large plastic dishpan. Others stir and mix in different parts of the room, located in a school.

This youth-owned bakery cooperative, a going concern every weekday for the last four summers, aims to give work expericne and a new sense of responsibility to young teenagers in everything from buying the ingredients and banking them to selling the results and keeping the books straight.

The co-op youth employment project is a joint effort of 30 Luthern churches in the Chicago area and the Community Renewal Society, a unique urban mission group closely related to the United Church of Christ. The CRS has helped spawn more than 70 consumer and producer cooperatives over the years.

"We tell them if they burn cookies, it comes out of their own pocket," says 17-year-old Lisa Williams, who started as a baker four summers ago and is now a supervisor.

Everyone here hope that the long-subsidized project may make a profit for the first time by summer's end, when expenses are deducted from the $700-$1,000 weekly sales. If so, each youngster will get a bonus in addition to the $2 -an-hour regular pay. None of the co-op members particularly wants to head for a baking career.But all are happy to be getting job experience and most are decidely intriguted by the idea of owning or running a small business one day. As Jeffrey Smith puts it, "If I couldn't get any other joob and had to work in a bakery. I'd like to be the boss."

As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the CRS is one of the city's most respected and innovative institutions. It has made a powerful difference in opening new opportunities, from employment to better parks services, to inner-city residents, who often feel trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Where others see problems that appear overwhelmingly discouraging -- rising poverty, urban blight, unemployment, and racial tension -- the CRS sees opportunities for renewal. Its idealistic aim is to make this city a more humane place to live.

Yet it is hard to point to singular CRS accomplishments. Its leaders appear happiest working in coalition with other groups, and CRS has often taken a back-seat role by nurturing neighborhood organizations with grants and technical assistance.

Founded as the Chicago City Missionary Society by a group of Congregational ministers and laymen, it originally focused on the problems of new immigratns and worked largely through member churches and settlement houses.

But convinced by the 1960s that stronger neighborhoods were vital to the survival of the city itself, the CRS dropped the link with settlement houses and broadened its reach. It sought to work with a wide range of community-based organizations and a more ecumenical mix of churches. The society began to work harder for institutional changes. Its top priority has become the lessening of poverty and racial injustice -- no small challenge in a city that is now 40 percent black and where 20 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line.

Donald Benedict Recently resigned as CRS-executive director after 22 years to become pastor of the People's Church of Chicago. During his tenure, he brought more blacks and progressive businessmen to the society's board of directors and led the effort to change the name to Community Renewal Society -- one that more accurately describes the society's new outreach to neighborhoods.Self-help, he explains, was seen as the key to renewal.

"It seemed to me we had to develop methods and organizations by which people themselves take responsibility for their own political destinies and make decisions about their own neighborhoods," he says.

In giving encouragement, dollars, and technical assistance to neighborhood groups, the CRS tries to tailor its help to the groups' own goals rather than dictating how its help should be used. It is a difference, recipients say, that sets the CRS apart from the pack.

"The society really understands what community organizations are going through," says Louis Delgado, director of a Native American Educational Services training prorject, which works with 17 Indian connunity groups in the Chicago area. "Usually with technical assistance, you're told: 'This is what we do -- come down and we'll show you.' The society turns that around. It says: 'We'll come out and work on the problems you identify.'"

For its part, CRS, which puts its credibility on the line with every association, tries to be somewhat selective in its alliances.

"There haave been times when we haven't supported organizations when we were pretty sure they were going to use violence [to achieve their aims]," says former executive director Benedict. "But if we decide they aren't, and they're open organizations with democratic safeguards, we're willing to go along."

Still, the CRS has taken risks and occasionally endured the consequences. It has been accused, particularly during the late '60s and early '70s, of everything from plotting revolution to organizing and funding violent street gangs. And when the West Side Organization, a group founded by the CRS, decided to picket a neighborhood laundry for more jobs for local residents, the lanudry responded with $1 million suits against the society and each member of the board of directors.

"You can imagine what that did to the board," says the Rev. Kenneth Smith with a chuckle. He is the current board president and considers CRS's willingness to take risks on new ventures one of its strongest assets.

Evenutally the Illinois Supreme Court decided the case in favor of the CRS and the laundry was forced to step up area employment.

"What we've learned is that you really have to trust local people to do what they have to do," observes Dr. Benedict.

In employment, much of the society's work has focused on research studies and development of model projects, rather than on providing direct services or placement. The bakery co-op, for instance, is a model project from which the CRS may withdraw when the number of churches involved reaches a broader base.

"We're just trying to find out what works and what doesn't," says S. Garry Oniki, director of the society's Center for Community Research and Assistance. "And one thing we've learned is that work experience at [an age younger than 16] for those not likely to go to college is very valuable. Our city congregations have been full of 19-year-olds with babies and no joob experience."

One of the society's newest and most well-known assets is the Chicago Reporter, a monthly investigative newsletter on racial and urban issues. Printed in brown type on thin white paper and circulated to 3,000 subscribers, the Reporter has paved the way for other Chicago papers on a number of stories. The Chicago Sun-Times has labeled it "a priceless city asset" and it has won 18 national and local awards.

Often its findings net direct results. As expose of the differences in the distribution and upkeep of park facilities and programs in white and minority neighborhoods played a key role in a US Justice Department decision late last year to sue the Chicago Park District on the issue.

And a Reporter article in the mid-1970s revealing that the city had the highest rate of deathes from fire of the 10 largest US cities -- instead of the lowest as officials had been claiming -- led to several reforms and the resignation of the fire comissioner. Another 1978 survey of fire department ambulance services disclosed that the bulk of the cars dispatched to minority neighborhoods lacked vial emergency equipment. This report also led to a major correction.

"We don't think of ourselves as missionaires -- we're journalists," says Reporter editor and publisher John McDermott. "Good journalism can be used to advance and serve certain ideals and social goals such as racial justice and peace -- but there's too much moralizing and editorializing on racial issues. We emphasize analysis. That's whee the big need is."

One of the society's most direct services to inner-city residents these days is its Pleasant Valley Outdoor Center some 50 miles northwest of Chicago. For two weeks during the summer it serves as a camp for single-parent families who want a taste of country living. But most of the summer it is used as a weekly camp for city children ages 8 to 14. They enjoy regular camp programs, hiking along rolling prairie and marshlands, and feeding and watching the animals (including three goats, 230 chickesn, and some rabbits) on the farm.

Center program director Jean Garvin says for most campers it is a sharp change from the bustle and noise of city living. "City kids just aren't used to its being as dark as it is out here -- they're used to street lights," she says.

The CRS also reaches out to all denominations, races,and ethnic backgrounds for its own adult choral group, launched in 1970, and a 50-member youth chorus called "All God's Children." The singers rehearse Saturdays, give concerts frewuently around the city, and recently adults and youths from both groups went on an extensive European tour.

"In my view, the chorus is a celebration in microcosm of the city's possibilities -- a vision of the joy and excitement possible in better days together," says Paul Sherry, executive director of CRS since the beginning of the year.

To do all that it does, the CRS relies on a budget of close to $2 million a year and a paid staff of about 50. It attracts help from numerous foundations and volunteers. For almost half of its annual income, the society relies on a trust started iin 1925 with a $4.3 million bequest from Victor Lawson, editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily News. He was long a very active member of the Congregational Church and was particularly grateful for the education and training the society gave many of his immigrant newsboys.

The society also is reaching out to its own and other networks of churches in the effort to fulfill its goals. CRS leaders, past and present, view the current ecumenical reach and the society's relaxed approach to gaining converts as entirely appropriate.

"Our viewpoint has been," the Rev. Dr. Benedict says, "that God is at work in bringing justice on this earth. The task for us is to identify where that's occurring and really become a part of it. Jesus, after all, was about the work of helping the poor and oppressed . . . If someone asks why we are there, then we have a chance to explain it. But you don't go proclaiming your faith. You go acting out your faith."

"We have felt that the best way to fulfill our religious convictions and help to create better cities is to work for a general wholenwss of people so that they can lead fulfilled whole lives," adds the Rev. Mr. Smith. "We do it by working with a variety of organizations which have similar aims, but do noot necessarily have religious tags."

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